In much of life, there’s an oft-overlooked, almost soulful fifth sense that lifts the ordinary to the sublime.
It can be easily be found in food; we learn early on to recognize the four main flavors: sweet, salt, bitter and sour. But what about mushrooms, which can’t be neatly described by those four?
Just over a hundred years ago a Japanese researcher isolated a fifth flavor, which we now know has very specific receptor buds in our mouths; he called it umami, which roughly translates as savory. Close your eyes and conjure the otherwise indistinct flavor of shellfish, cooked meats, unseasoned broth, Parmesan cheese and green tea. Out of this research, the flavor enhancer called MSG was created specifically as artificial umami.
I often include in my lectures a short treatise on what I call “garden umami” — those nearly imperceptible but distinct sensual experiences of gardening that don’t tuck neatly into sight, sound, taste, smell and touch. It’s the inner pleasure of hearing birds singing and smelling early jonquils. The fear of snakes, the irritation of neighbors’ cats in our flower beds, and the satisfaction of looking over our shoulders and seeing our freshly-mown lawn or other completed chore.
There is a word for this: Quintessence, the atmospheric, aethereal quality of life; it comes from medieval Latin for the “fifth essence” or element, after earth, air, fire and water. It can embody the most splendid, can’t-be-improved-upon epitome of something. The perfectly apt.
And it describes our favorite tools, which typically do only one thing but are so handy that if we didn’t have them, we’d invent them. And some are downright fun to use.
Think toothbrush and nail clippers. In the kitchen there’s the garlic press, iron skillet, potato peeler, toaster and bottle or can opener. And big wooden matches, which are like having your own personal hand-held version of the universe’s Big Bang. In the post-pencil office, it’d be the computer mouse and phone charger.
Some quintessential garden tools, such as sundials, have been around for many centuries and have no moving parts other than the gardener. They include necessary ones such as a shovel, hoe, ax, water can and tomato stakes. A rain gauge because the Weather Channel studs don’t know for sure how much I got last night. My grandmother’s flower frog for standing flowers up in the vase, and “pot feet” to prevent water stains beneath containers.
While no two gardeners would have identical lists of favorite can’t-garden-without tools, most of us depend on our water hoses, pruning shears and lawn mowers.
Though I love my powerful leaf blower, there’s something intimate about the feel and sounds of leaf rakes; it’s like the whirring, throat-cleaning sound a manual push mower makes.
The particularly useful, jeans pocket-sparing leather scabbard of my hand pruners is nearly always clipped on my belt every time I go out in the yard. And the smooth, warm wood handles on my square-bladed garden spade and antique garden fork, both which I use nearly all the time for turning and sifting dirt and roots, are well-oiled from sweat and mud stains.
Other tools I’d sorely miss include my bird feeder, blade-sharpening file, rolls of twine and green florist wire for tying stuff up, and trash can for my personal potting soil mix. And 5-gallon buckets for hauling stuff and bailing out my water garden. Oh, and my bottle trees and garden gnomes which keep me smiling.
Those are the tools I use the most because they perform simple tasks like nothing else; without them I’d be less of a gardener.
They are, in a word, quintessential.
• Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to email@example.com.